Can Quiet Cognitive Breaks Help You Learn?

We write a lot on the blog about “desirable difficulties” (for example, here and here). Extra cognitive work during early learning makes memories more robust.

cognitive breaks

Retrieval practice takes more brain power than simple review — that is, it’s harder. But, it helps students remember much more.

Wouldn’t it be great if some easy things helped too?

How about: doing nothing at all?

Cognitive Breaks: The Theory

When a memory begins to form, several thousand neurons begin connecting together. The synapses linking them get stronger.

Everything we do to help strengthen those synapses, by definition, helps us remember.

We know that sleep really helps in this process. In fact, researchers can see various brain regions working together during sleep. It seems that they’re “rehearsing” those memories.

If sleep allows the brain to rehearse, then perhaps a short cognitive break would produce the same result.

Cognitive Breaks: The Research

Michaela Dewar and colleagues have been looking into this question.

They had study participants listen to two stories. After one story, participants had to do a distracting mental task. (They compared pictures for subtle differences.)

After the other, they “rest[ed] quietly with their eyes closed in the darkened testing room for ten minutes.”

Sure enough, a week later, the quiet rest led to better memory. As a rough calculation, they remember 10% more than without the quiet rest.

10% more learning with essentially 0% extra cognitive effort: that’s an impressive accomplishment!

Classroom Questions

A finding like this raises LOTS of practical questions.

Dewar’s study didn’t focus on K-12 learners. (In fact, in this study, the average age was over 70.) Do these findings apply to our students?

Does this technique work for information other than stories? For instance: mathematical procedures? Dance steps? Vocabulary definitions?

Does this finding explain the benefits of mindfulness? That is: perhaps students can get these memory benefits without specific mindfulness techniques. (To be clear: some mindfulness researchers claim benefits above and beyond memory formation.)

Can this finding work as a classroom technique? Can we really stop in the middle of class, turn out the lights, tell students to “rest quietly for 10 minutes,” and have them remember more?

Would they instead remember more if we tried a fun fill-in-the-blank review exercise?

I’ll be looking into this research pool, and getting back to you with the answers I find.

Cognitive Breaks: The Neuroscience

If you’d like to understand the brain details of this research even further, check out the video at this website. (Scroll down just a bit.) [Edit 11/4/19: This link no longer works; alas, I can’t find the video.]

The researchers explain a lot of science very quickly, so you’ll want to get settled before you watch. But: it covers this exact question with precision and clarity.

(By the way: you’ll hear the researchers talk about “consolidation.” That’s the process of a memory getting stronger.)

If you do watch the video, you might consider resting quietly after you do. No need to strain yourself: just let your mind wander…

hat tip: Michael Wirtz

2 Responses to Can Quiet Cognitive Breaks Help You Learn?

  1. Gayle Sollfrank says:

    Hi Andrew Watson! Thank you for this article. I was wondering if you could revisit the video link? Currently, it simply links to the article. Thank you!

    • Andrew Watson says:

      Hello, Gayle–

      First: thanks for pointing out this problem with the link. Second: I can’t find the video! I’m not sure if it’s been taken down, or if my sleuthing skills have atrophied. I’ll keep looking, but: for the time being, I recommend looking at the study itself.


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